Character Immersion (typically just called "immersion") in tabletop RPGs occurs when you think, feel, and decide what your character thinks, feels, and decides, based on what your character knows and senses. Immersion can also be seen as a state where you become immersed in your character's knowledge, thoughts, feelings, and motivations for a significant period of time, often "tuning out" the real world.
That state of immersion is broken whenever a player is taken away from thinking or feeling what their character thinks or feels, or must make a decision that their character could not realistically make. The real world or the game system might take you out of immersion.
Role-playing does not require immersion. Acting does not require immersion. Even Method acting doesn't require total immersion. Indeed, Method acting calls up the actor's own personal experiences. Immersion doesn't necessarily improve your RPG experience or skills, either. It's just one way to approach and enjoy roleplaying.
A lot of role players are very dedicated to immersion. To many, immersion is the essence of role-playing. When you're immersed in a character in a challenging situation, it feels like you are facing danger and taking risks, so it feels like you are the winner in such epic contests. Immersion is the core of Gary Allen Fine's Escape motivation and MDA's concept of Fantasy.
Below are some earlier thoughts from writers on the idea of immersion in RPGs. At the bottom, I'll tell you how to use these ideas as a GM to make your games better. Even if you don't use these ideas as a GM, adding these ideas to your vocabulary will help you express your interests as an RPG player better.
Gary Allen Fine: Frames
Gary Allen Fine applied Goffman's Frame Analysis to tabletop RPGs by way back when we all listened to cassette tapes. Frames, per Goffman, are shared perspectives we use to make decisions and interact with each other. Frame analysis is often used in politics, business, and social theory. Fine describes three nested frames:
- First is the Social Frame, where you interact as a person hanging out with friends or hobby acquaintances. In this frame, the ideal is to have a good time with friends.
- Second is the Game Frame, where you interact as a player of a game. In this frame, the ideal is to play the game in the way the players decide is best, to achieve game goals, and to follow the rules.
- Third is the Game World Frame, where you interact as your character. In this frame, the ideal is typically defined by your character hooks -- the things that motivate your character. This frame is also well described as being within the magic circle.
Immersion, then, is spending most of your time in the Game World Frame. But to understand immersion in the context of all the other activities different modern RPGs ask of us -- to understand what immersion is not -- we need to understand the Game Frame better.
Fine published Shared Fantasy in 1983, and he wrote it in the very early days of tabletop RPGs. Arguably the roots of the "story game" movement were published in the 1990s with Vampire: the Masquerade, but the ideas that motivated them go back another five or ten years. Even still, that means Fine missed out on the "Narrativist" movement.
Today, even Dungeons & Dragons (5th edition) has story game elements and in the Basic Rules for Players and Players Handbook, 5th edition claims to be a game, "...about storytelling in worlds of swords and sorcery.". Compare to the same introductory sentence (buried further in after a lot of preface) in the 1st edition AD&D Player's Handbook:
"Swords & sorcery best describes what this game is all about, for those are the two key fantasy ingredients. ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is a fantasy game of role playing which relies upon the imagination of participants, for it is certainly make-believe, yet it is so interesting, so challenging, so mind-unleashing that it comes near reality."
Note the similarities ("swords and sorcery," "game") and differences ("make-believe... comes near reality," vs. "storytelling"). Telling a story is distinct from immersing in a character in a game of make-believe. The two activities are artistically and experientially distinct. They indicate different approaches to playing RPGs. So the Game Frame needs to be modified a bit to take into account storytelling concerns in today's RPG milieu.
A modern understanding of the Game Frame also includes the broader story, themes, mood, and genre of the shared fantasy. Players making decisions about the fun of the game, the coherence of the story in the game, or the game's theme and mood are acting in the Game Frame. A player might step back from a Game World Frame discussion of plans to storm the castle and say "guys, burning the castle down is the most expedient way to kill the necromancer, sure; but it's not as fun as sneaking in. How about we go with that?" That player is acting in the Game Frame without referencing the rules or stats at all, because the characters -- that is, the players in the Game World Frame -- wouldn't (usually) choose a more dangerous plan just because it's more fun.
Ron Edwards: Stance
Immersion is one of the possible ways to play tabletop RPGs. These ways are referred to as "stance" in The Big Model. According to the Big Model, every player at the table, including the GM, shifts among different stances. Stance refers to the attitude of the player toward the game world.
- Actor Stance: The player portrays the character as an improv actor would, attempting to imagine what the character would think, feel, need, and fear. This is D&D's "make-believe" and Fine's Game World Frame. This is where immersion comes in.
- Author Stance: The player decides how they want events to unfold for their character, makes decisions that will lead to those results, then fills in characters' motivations to achieve that direction.
- Pawn Stance: The player uses the character as an avatar of their will, without regard for the character's unique motivations.
- Director Stance: Director stance is like Author Stance, but applied to things outside of a single character's sphere of influence.
Immersion, in this model, is spending your time in Actor Stance. However, there are RPGs that require players to use other stances. Many RPGs have mechanics that are triggered by a decision the player makes, not the character. This necessarily places the player in Author Stance (or Director Stance if they're making decisions that affect other characters or players).
Justin Alexander: Dissociated Mechanics
Justin Alexander defines Associated Mechanics being a game mechanic "which has a connection to the game world." It's a simple definition, but it's not as clear as Alexander makes it out to be. The example of a Dissociated mechanic Alexander uses to illustrate this is a reroll mechanic:
"For example, consider a football game in which a character has the One-Handed Catch ability: Once per game they can make an amazing one-handed catch, granting them a +4 bonus to that catch attempt."
He claims that the player making the decision to use this mechanic is Dissociated because there is no connection to the game world. I would argue that there is a grey area, and that the "one handed catch" mechanic is pretty well connected: The example ability can only be used on a game-world event, after all. But one bad example doesn't invalidate Alexander's argument.
What Alexander is really referring to is whether the mechanic is one that a character's decision triggers. A Dissociated Mechanic, then, is one that is not necessarily triggered by the decision of a player's character in the Game World Frame or Actor Stance. A Dissociated Mechanic cannot be used in the Game World Frame or Actor Stance. If you are a player who enjoys immersion, a Dissociated Mechanic will take you out of your immersion state.
As I said above, mechanics aren't really either/or - they're Dissociated to greater or lesser degrees. In fact, unless you're LARPing, or roleplaying a conversation as a bunch of modern-day geeks sitting around a dinner table, most mechanics are at least a little Dissociated.
Consider how well Associated the Fireball spell is in Pathfinder. Your character reaches into her pouch and hurriedly counts out some arcane components. You reach into a dice bag and hurriedly count out several six-sided dice. Your character delves through her memory of a spell she memorized that morning. You delve through your memory for a spell you memorized a few months ago. Your character speaks some arcane words and hurls the components before her, mentally computing distance, bearing, and force. You speak some game jargon (fireball, third level wizard evocation, save DC 19, allows SR!) and hurl the dice upon the table, mentally adding single digit numbers. And that's it. Your part is over. That's about as Associated as it gets, but you still interact with mildly immersion-breaking elements (saving throws, spell resistance, concentration checks, grids and miniatures, etc.). As I said, it's a continuum. Fireball is far down the Associated side, though.
At the other extreme, consider in Fiasco, choosing whether to Establish or Resolve at the start of your turn. Your character cannot have any part in deciding whether he will establish a scene or resolve a scene. It's a Director Stance decision that takes place squarely in the Game Frame. It's a very Dissociated mechanic, but it still involves considering what your character knows, wants, and can accomplish.
Alexander's One Handed Catch ability is somewhere between the two, but sounds a lot closer to Fireball than it does to Establish or Resolve. And it should -- One Handed Catch is something the character is actually doing, even if it is slightly Dissociated by the player making the decision to expend the limited resource, instead of the character. The main difference is the fact that the Pathfinder player has a Game World Frame explanation for the once-a-day resource of her Fireball, while the One Handed Catch player does not (or needs to invent it).
Sphere of Influence
Now we get to the heart of immersion. Immersion is all about the Sphere of Influence a player has over the game world. At a minimum, players can only control what their characters can control, keeping them in Actor Stance in the Game World Frame, using Associated Mechanics. As the game system broadens the player's Sphere of Influence and allows them to control things that their character cannot, the system forces the player to act in Author and Director Stance or interact with Dissociated Mechanics in the Game or even Social Frame.
A system that gives players a broader sphere of influence empowers them to be greater participants in the narrative; but at the same time, it forces them to break immersion.
Story games are rarely very immersive. That might seem shocking, but not if you've been paying attention! Remember, immersion is "playing make-believe" which is very different from "acting." Think about the "typical" definitions of those terms. In Fiasco, I find myself acting, not playing make-believe. I have a scene I want to portray, and a goal for how I think it should resolve that has more to do with my desires as an Author than it does with what my character wants. I might act in the Game World Frame, but not with a lot of immersion. (I rarely play Fiasco characters who I want to feel immersed in, anyway. They're all screw-ups!) I act for the audience of other players (who are actually judging me!), who are fully ensconced in Director Stance. Of course I consider my character's motivations, but I do it the way an author does, retroactively adapting them to fit how I want the scene to go.
On the other hand, D&D and its constellation of "heartbreakers," retroclones, and heirs strongly limit the players' sphere of influence. Gygax intended to give DMs random tables and rules for everything so that they could appear as impartial judges of the players' actions, so the players would feel like they were their characters, letting the players immerse more and more. It's what distinguished D&D from Chainmail and other wargames. It can feel very powerful immersing in a character and feeling the dangers of an old school dungeon pressing in around you.
So how does this help GMs?
When you plan your RPG, choose a system that provides the right amount of player sphere of influence. Horror RPGs tend to be very immersive, with limited spheres of influence and characters who are often helpless against the monsters they encounter. It would be hard to run a horror RPG in a game like Fate, where the rulebook specifically advises GMs not to kill the players, and the players have the power to concede conflicts to avoid the worst outcomes, compel NPCs on their Aspects, or invent story details from a Director Stance point of view. On the other hand, if the players add to the action with improbable conicidences and thematic callbacks like that in a pulp thriller game, it's a win-win! So choose Fate for pulp thrillers, and Call of Cthulhu for existential horror. I'm not saying you can't get good immersion in Fate; but Fate's greatest strengths are in its Dissociated Mechanics.
In addition, it's up to you to help the whole group choose the right game system. If you have four players who love immersive make-believe and don't like the burden of author-style storytelling, play Pathfinder, not Fate. If they're always chiming in with story ideas or suggestions, play Fate, not Pathfinder. Again, Pathfinder has some Author Stance options (Hero Points come to mind, and there's the Lorefinder optional ruleset).
Mechanics that are highly simulationist are not always very immersive. Consider Encumbrance in D&D. Despite the fact that everything about it is part of your character's lived experience and knowledge, and every decision you make about your weight allowance is made in character, adding up pounds and ounces is not how your character experiences carrying weight. This is the distinction between simulation and immersion. It demonstrates why learning different game theories is useful: Using all of our terms, above, we can see why it's not immersive. Encumbrance is squarely an Actor Stance Associated Mechanic, sure, but it takes place entirely in the Game Frame, with the player adding numbers up with a calculator and comparing them to a weight allowance table.
If you happen to design a game or game mechanic, consider whether you want to push players out of actor stance before inventing a Dissociated Mechanic or one that pulls the players out of the Game World Frame. For some RPGs, it might be a great idea to push the players into Author or Director Stance. If you're designing fear rules for a horror game, though, keep it as closely Associated as possible.
Keep in mind that some players will immerse in Actor Stance no matter what; and others will never immerse in Actor Stance. It might be fun to split the party occasionally and place the immersive players in an emotional scene, then place the author stance players in a creative, story-driving scene. Or focus your scary scene elements on the immersed players, and turn to your Director Stance players for more scary ideas!
If you've got a system that limits players' sphere of influence, you can encourage immersion by leading the players through action with questions and scene framing in the second person - prompts that force them to make decisions as a character, not as a player: "The bayou honkey tonk is damp and quiet at this hour of the morning. There are three motorcycles sitting out front. A bearded man in leather with Oakley sunglasses and a baphomet tattoo on his forehead walks out the front door, glances at you, and then crosses his arms. 'I-12 two miles back that way, y'all,' he growls..." Use loose scene framing, only skipping over boring things like travel time. The less you as the GM make suggestions or presumptions, the less the players will break out of their immersion to make suggestions or presumptions themselves.